March 7


Presiding Judge Sharon Keller narrowly wins Texas Court of Criminal Appeals primary race

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller narrowly won the Republican primary Tuesday night, overcoming a challenger who knocked her for her multiple ethical controversies.

The presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals took a step closer to securing another 6 years on the bench after narrowly winning Tuesday's Republican primary election.

Incumbent Sharon Keller, 64, beat David Bridges in the primary with about 52 % of the vote with 88 % of precincts reporting, according to the Texas secretary of state's office.

Keller was first elected to the state's highest criminal appellate court in 1994, and she has held the lead role as presiding judge since 2001. She and the 8 other judges on the court handle all death penalty reviews and serve as the last resort for all criminal appeals in the state.

Bridges, 62, challenged Keller largely based on her multiple ethical controversies over the years, which include a $25,000 fine in 2013 for previously failing to disclose nearly $3 million of personal real estate holdings and a 1998 opinion refusing to grant a new trial in a rape case despite DNA evidence suggesting the convicted man didn't commit the crime (he was later pardoned by then-Gov. George W. Bush).

Most famously, she rejected a 2007 final death penalty appeal because the lawyers filed it a few minutes past the deadline. Keller insisted, "We close at 5," and the man was executed that night. The decision brought questions from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, criticism from state legislators and earned her the nickname "Sharon Killer."

She said in November that the controversy was behind her and noted that voters knew of those incidents when they re-elected her in 2012 - though she didn't face a Republican primary opponent on the ballot that year. A Democrat hasn't won a statewide office in Texas since 1994.

Bridges serves on the 5th District Court of Appeals, the lower state appellate court that covers the Dallas area. He has held his position on that court since 1997, and his term ends in 2020.

Keller will now face Democrat Maria Jackson, a state district judge in Houston, for the general election in November.

Michelle Slaughter also grabbed a Republican nomination for the court Tuesday night, defeating 2 primary opponents for the seat of Judge Elsa Alcala, who decided in 2016 not to run for re-election.

Slaughter, a state district judge in Galveston County, received nearly 53 % of votes with 88 % of precincts reporting, enough to avoid a runoff. She fought Bexar County Assistant District Attorney Jay Brandon and state District Judge Dib Waldrip of Comal County for the seat. With no Democrats running, she'll almost definitely take the seat in the general election this November (one Libertarian candidate is also running).

She was the only 1 of the 3 without a criminal appellate background, having worked in civil law before becoming a judge. But she also had the most conservative endorsements, including backing by Empower Texans, Texas Right to Life and numerous local Tea Party groups.

Republican Judge Barbara Parker Hervey is also up for election this year, but she was uncontested in the primary election. She will face Democrat Ramona Franklin in the general. 3 Texas Supreme Court seats were also up for grabs, but none of the positions had contested primaries. Justices Jimmy Blacklock, John Devine and Jeff Brown will all face Democratic challengers in November.

(source: Texas Tribune)


Capital murder trial of man accused of killing SAPD officer during 2013 chase begins----Shawn Puente faces execution if convicted

Puente is accused of leading police on a high-speed chase from south San Antonio into Wilson County on the night of Dec. 7, 2013. He and his female companion, Jenevieve Ramos, 28, were suspected of robbing a San Pedro Avenue convenience store.

Officer Robert Deckard, 31, was the lead police officer in the chase as he pursued the couple's car into Wilson County, authorities said.

Several shots were fired at Deckard from the suspect's car, officials said. A single shot penetrated the patrol car's windshield, hitting Deckard in the forehead.

Deckard's patrol car crashed into some trees alongside Interstate 37 as the suspect's vehicle continued on into Wilson County, authorities said.

The pair was arrested after they were found hiding in a ditch a few hours later, authorities said. They were charged with capital murder.

Deckard died 13 days later in the hospital.

When asked how he pleaded at his trial's opening, Puente claimed he was not guilty.

During her opening statement, defense attorney Anne Jimenez told the jury that Puente fired the fatal shot.

"This is a complex case," Jimenez said. "Don't rush to a snap decision."

Jimenez said Puente was a homeless meth addict and was on what she described as a "drug binge" on the night of the armed robbery.

"Shawn made some bad, horrible, reckless decisions in his life," Jimenez said. "This was the worst."

Ramos is awaiting trial. Prosecutors have indicated that, like Puente, they will seek the death penalty in her case.

Testimony in Puente's trial will resume Wednesday in Judge Donna Reyes' State District Court in Atascosa County.

(source: KSAT news)


Bedford MS-13 gang murder trials postponed

Trials previously scheduled for next week in the 2017 slaying of a Lynchburg teen by alleged MS-13 members have been put off as a host of attorneys review pieces of evidence numbering in the tens of thousands.

Kevin Josue Soto-Bonilla, 20, and Cristian Jose Sanchez-Gomez, 23, both were scheduled for a 3-week jury trial starting March 13 for their alleged roles in the death of 17-year-old Raymond Wood last year. They're 2 of 5 defendants charged with murder, robbery, abduction with intent to extort and participating in a gang in that case.

Both Soto-Bonilla and Sanchez-Gomez's attorneys filed motions to continue the case late last month, citing "voluminous" evidence prosecutors have provided them for review. One motion mentioned more than 93,000 electronic files that have been transmitted already and added there likely are more files on the way. Search warrants filed in Bedford County indicate law enforcement has investigated the defendants' social media accounts in the past 2 months.

Bedford Commonwealth's Attorney Wes Nance said Tuesday Sanchez-Gomez's case has been continued; it's now set for a trial Sept. 11 that will last about 3 weeks. Sanchez-Gomez did not appear in court Tuesday.

"This has been a very aggressive and successful investigation thus far," he said in court, later mentioning evidence collection "will be ongoing after [Tuesday]."

Security in Bedford County Circuit Court was stepped up Tuesday, with Bedford County Sheriff's Office deputies stationed at nearly every exit in the courtroom. Soto-Bonilla, his hands bound in cuffs, listened to live translations of the court proceedings through an interpreter.

His attorneys stood before Judge James Updike Jr. Tuesday afternoon to address their motion to continue the case and a motion to declare the Virginia death penalty unconstitutional.

Aaron Houchens, one of Soto-Bonilla's attorneys, told the judge Tuesday they had no oral arguments to add to the motion they filed in December. In that motion, Soto-Bonilla's attorneys state Virginia's statutes on capital murder and the death penalty violate rights in both the U.S. and Virginia constitutions.

"The 2 aggravating factors the jury must consider in determining whether to impose the death penalty, 'vileness' and 'future dangerousness,' are unconstitutionally vague and do not provide the sentencer with sufficient guidance to avoid the arbitrary and capricious infliction of a death sentence," reads one argument in the motion.

In court, Nance asked the judge to reject the motion.

"I do believe that this is very settled law within the commonwealth of Virginia," he said.

Updike denied the motion, but the issue remains in play for a potential appeal. Soto-Bonilla's case will be scheduled for further proceedings in May.

Another defendant in the case, 20-year-old Victor Arnoldo Rodas, filed for a continuance of his case March 1 for the same reasons as his co-defendants. Attorneys stated his trial, which was supposed to last from May 29 to June 8, is too early, and they need more time to review evidence and hire a private investigator for Rodas' defense team.

The defense team for Josue Moises Coreas-Ventura, 21, yet another defendant in the case, received approval in late February to appoint another expert for their client. With a number of sealed documents filed in court regarding Coreas-Ventura's competency to stand trial, they've identified a bilingual neuropsychologist to aid in his case. Further proceedings in his case are set to be scheduled in July.

(source: Lynchburg News & Advance)


SC Senate rejects firing squads but approves requiring electric chair as backup

The state Senate on Tuesday rejected a proposal to include firing squads as a means of execution but gave key approval to a bill to require the use of the electric chair if lethal injection is not available.

The electric-chair bill was proposed by Sen. William Timmons of Greenville, who argued it would provide certainty for convicted criminals' victims at a time when some prosecutors have been persuaded to seek life sentences, only, because lethal-injection drugs are no longer available.

"South Carolina has made its voice known and has asked that justice be served," Timmons said afterward.

The 26-12 vote along party lines came after hours of debate that included discussion of capital punishment.

After a final reading in the Senate, the bill will head to the House, where it will undergo hearings and votes there. If unaltered there, it would head to Gov. Henry McMaster, who could make it law.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw County Democrat, opposed the bill.

"I believe there are people who deserve the death penalty," he said. "I also believe that the inevitable arc we are headed in is that one day we will not have it. But what I regret seeing is us moving backwards in our recognition of our need to move forward in our civilization and in our humanity."

Earlier Tuesday the Senate rejected a proposal to allow firing squads. Rep. Joshua Putnam, a Piedmont Republican, had filed a bill to allow firing squads, saying they are more humane than other methods of capital punishment because death comes quicker and without lengthy pain, but the proposal Tuesday was a floor amendment.

The Senate voted 33-9 vote to table that proposal.

The firing-squad amendment was made by Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat.

Hutto said his amendment would allow inmates to choose either the electric chair or a firing squad if lethal injection is not available.

"This won't delay anything," he said of his proposal. "It just gives them the opportunity if they don't want the electric chair and they can't get the drugs to have the firing squad."

South Carolina has not executed anyone since 2011. Though officials say the reason is because of appeals, the state's prison system is currently unable to carry out an execution by lethal injection because its drugs have expired and drug companies have refused to sell more.

The state's primary method of execution is lethal injection, though prisoners can choose the electric chair, also available.

Timmons, whose bill would require the chair, also authored a bill to shield the source of drugs for lethal injection. Although that bill remains on the Senate calendar, it is considered more controversial and has less chance at passage than the electric-chair legislation.

He argued Tuesday that "our society is a society of laws" that must carry out death penalties as sentenced.

"The people of South Carolina asked for justice to be served, and it's our responsibility to see that justice is carried out," he said.

According to the national Death Penalty Information Center, three states have firing squads on their books, Utah, Mississippi and Oklahoma, though none of the states uses it as a primary method of execution.

The last person executed by firing squad was killed in 2010 in Utah, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

South Carolina currently has 36 people on its death row.

While all of the state's 36 inmates on death row are in the process of appeals, 11 have thus far chosen their means of execution. All but 1 have chosen lethal injection; the other chose the electric chair.

(source: Greenville News)


SC Senate approves forcing death row inmates to the electric chair if drugs are unavailable

Death row inmates would have to die by electrocution if lethal injection drugs aren't available under legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate.

Currently, inmates sentenced to death have a choice. But if a prisoner doesn't want to die on the electric chair, the state's prison agency can't carry out an execution order because the state's supply of all three drugs used in lethal injection has expired, and pharmaceutical companies will no longer sell them for executions. It's a national problem.

35 inmates sit on death row in South Carolina. Another man sentenced to death in South Carolina is currently in a California prison.

The state promised their victims' families a "certain type of justice we're unable to deliver through a loophole in the system," said Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, the bill's sponsor. "This changes the default. ... They can choose whichever, and if that isn't available, the electric chair will be used."

South Carolina has executed 282 people since 1912. Lethal injection became an option in 1995. Only three of 39 people executed since then have died by electrocution, most recently in 2008. The last execution occurred in 2011, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections.

For opponents, the debate was about the death penalty itself.

"These are bad people who did some bad things, but who are you? Are you going to be a killer too?" asked Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville.

Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, asked Timmons to reconcile being staunchly "pro-life" when it comes to abortion and "pro-death" on the death penalty.

Timmons said he sees no inconsistency between the two stances, saying it's about good versus evil.

"An unborn child is innocent," he said. "A murderer who has committed heinous crimes is guilty."

So far, the shortage of drugs has not prevented an execution in South Carolina. In December, the state Supreme Court ordered the execution of Bobby Wayne Stone, who was convicted in 1997 of killing a Sumter County Sheriff's sergeant. But the execution was put on hold pending a federal appeal that could take years.

The shortage has, however, changed how solicitors prosecute cases. They're pursuing life in prison instead of a death sentence, Timmons said.

(source: Post and Courier)


How sick is too sick to be executed?

The Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a death penalty case that hinges on a fine point. The court has ruled in the past that it is unconstitutional to execute people who can't understand why they face death at the hands of the state - usually people with mental illnesses or diminished intellectual abilities. Vernon Madison, who killed a Mobile, Ala., police officer in 1985, knows the state intends to execute him for committing a murder, but a series of strokes and other ailments have left him incontinent, barely able to walk and unable to recall the crime itself. So the question for the court is whether it is acceptable to execute someone who knows he was convicted of murder but can't remember what he did.

This is how far into surrealism our death penalty system has fallen. In another Alabama case, the Supreme Court decided not to delay or cancel the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, who argued that the procedure would amount to torture because cancer and a history of drug abuse had compromised his body so much that there would be trouble finding a vein for the lethal-injection catheter. Turns out he was right. After 2 1/2 hours and 11 attempts to insert the catheter - leaving, by one account, a bloody mess in the death chamber - the warden finally called off the execution a half-hour ahead of a midnight deadline. Which raises the question, how ill is too ill to be executed?

But wait - there's more. Florida continues to try to execute people sentenced to death by non-unanimous juries because the state Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional only for defendants whose cases have been decided since 2002 (it involves a fine legal distinction that defies common sense). And in yet another case, on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Todd Wessinger who argued, among other things, that his inexperienced appellate lawyer never investigated mitigating factors, such as childhood abuse and severe brain injuries (including a hole in his brain) - a failing that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing in dissent, said was "deeply unjust and unfair."

The list of absurdities runs on, but arguing over the fine lines and legal distinctions of specific cases tends to obscure the core unfairness and inhumanity of capital punishment itself. Death sentences fall disproportionately on minorities and the poor. Executions do not deter others from committing murder. Witnesses, police and prosecutors lie or make mistakes, leading to wrongful convictions. Executions occur decades after the crimes, which serves no penological purpose, yet due process requires a deliberate pace. The clearest solution for all of these issues would be to end a practice that diminishes us all and indicts our collective sense of humanity.

(source: Editorial, Los Angeles Times)


Alabama House passes bill making killing cops, first responders, children under 14 capital offenses

The Alabama House overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday that would make murdering a police officer, corrections officer, first responder or child under 14 years old subject to the death penalty.

"If you murder one of them, we're going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville. He said the bill was inspired by a rash of killings of police officers across the country a few years ago.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 72-20 with 6 abstentions.

Rep. Tommy Haynes, R-Scottsboro, praised Sells for introducing the bill.

"First responders, police officers - they're born with a servant's heart. Their full intent is to help people, to make a bad situation and hopefully make it a better situation," Haynes said. "It's just not right for these servants to have to worry about somebody bushwhacking them."

Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said that while she supported the bill, she said it reminded her of a double standard after a bill she sponsored to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the hate crimes law was defeated because Republicans argued that "a victim is a victim and [those characteristics] should not matter."

"Do you see how that is unfair?" Todd asked Sells. "And I am aggravated, and one of the reasons I'm not going to be here next year [in the House] is the hypocrisy that I see. ... My bill got killed on an argument that applies to your bill, but we're going to pass it."



Torture in Alabama's death chamber

On Feb. 22, officials with the Alabama Department of Corrections tried to execute death-row inmate Doyle Lee Hamm. 5 times they attempted to connect an IV line to Hamm's legs and feet. Each try failed. They then stuck a needle into his upper thigh and groin 6 times until he bled profusely, which caused officials to end the execution.

Drug use and repeated treatments for lymphatic cancer had rendered Hamm's veins unusable for lethal-injection executions, his legal team warned beforehand. They were right.

"This went beyond ghoulish justice and cruel and unusual punishment," Attorney Bernard Harcourt, who represents Hamm, wrote in a recent Columbia Law School blog post. "It was torture." On Monday, Hamm's legal team responded to the botched execution by filing a doctor's report with the U.S. District Court that detailed that night's escapade.

Indeed, the repeated attempts to insert an IV needle into an Alabama man's unusable veins - 11 attempts in all - seem a clear violation of Hamm's Eighth Amendment right against that type of punishment. They also are another example of why the death penalty in the United States is such a losing proposition for the executioners themselves.

Hamm, convicted of murdering Cullman motel clerk Patrick Cunningham in 1987, deserves lifelong imprisonment for his crime, never again to taste freedom. But there is no moral way to kill another human. Killing is killing, whether it is from street violence or domestic abuse or state-sanctioned executions carried out with the governor's signature.

Developed nations that truly abhor the worst forms of human behavior understand this. You can't kill and retain your moral standing. They see the slippery slope that traps death-penalty nations in an unwinnable argument in which one side claims superiority over convicted murderers and then kills them in a codified form of eye-for-an-eye justice.

It is illogical, ineffective and downright Victorian in its thinking.

The United States aligns itself with nations like Iran, China, Russia and Iraq each time it marches a condemned inmate to the death chamber. They are among our brothers in arms, nations that continue to falsely believe executing inmates is a crime deterrent and an acceptable way for civilized people to mete out the harshest forms of criminal justice.

Alabama's recent death-penalty missteps prove how warped its Republican-dominated lawmakers and corrections officials are in their attempts to reduce their death-row population. Certain drug manufacturers either no longer make the needed substances or decline to sell them for executions, causing states to seek substitutes. And when they're told an inmate's veins won't accept IV needles, they jam the needle in and in and in, a scene as macabre as it sounds.

We think Alabama is better than that, that we won't stand for the torture of inmates, even those convicted of murder.

(source: Editorial, Anniston Star)


U.S. Supreme Court denies what could be condemned Baton Rouge killer Todd Wessinger's final appeal

The nation's top court has rejected what could be condemned Baton Rouge killer Todd Wessinger's final appeal of his conviction and death sentence in the 1995 slaying of 2 restaurant employees during a 1995 robbery.

A nearly unanimous U.S. Supreme Court on Monday disagreed with Wessinger's claim that the performance of his attorneys during the penalty phase of his 1997 trial was constitutionally deficient.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the court's lone dissent that Wessinger was sentenced to death by a jury that wasn't presented with what she called "significant mitigation evidence" - including a major neurocognitive disorder that compromises his decision-making abilities - that may have convinced jurors to spare his life.

"That outcome is contrary to precedent and deeply unjust and unfair," Sotomayor stated.

The Supreme Court earlier this year rejected Wessinger's argument that his attorneys performed below constitutional standards during the jury selection and guilt phases of his trial.

John Sinquefield, who prosecuted Wessinger, said Tuesday he hopes the high court's latest ruling begins the last steps of carrying out the East Baton Rouge Parish jury's verdict and death sentence.

Wessinger, 50, is on death row for fatally shooting Stephanie Guzzardo, 27, and fellow worker David Breakwell, 46, at the now-closed Calendar's Restaurant on Perkins Road on Nov. 19, 1995. Guzzardo was the manager. Wessinger, a former Calendar's dishwasher at the time, shot a third employee in the back. That worker survived.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Wessinger's death sentence last summer. Senior U.S. District Judge James Brady, who died in December, threw the sentence out in 2015, ruling that Wessinger's attorneys provided him ineffective assistance during the penalty phase of his trial.

(source: The Advocate)


Free screening of documentary on La. death row exoneree in Lafayette

A new feature-length documentary following three people caught up in the death penalty system will be shown in front of a Lafayette audience next week. The screening of The Penalty is sponsored by Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) and The Promise of Justice Initiative, and Cinema on the Bayou.

The Penalty features Louisiana's Damon Thibodeaux, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He spent 15 years awaiting execution, mostly in solitary confinement, before his exoneration in 2012.

"This film shines a much-needed light on the immense human cost our criminal justice system and of the death penalty in particular," said Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of EJUSA. "Innocent people sent to death row, botched executions, and murder victims' families divided - these are but a few of the unthinkable consequences of a broken system."

Caroline Tillman, a staff attorney for Capital Appeals Project, was one of the lawyers who represented Thibodeaux in his fight for freedom. "Damon's story is indicative of Louisiana's broken death penalty system," Tillman said. "His conviction was obtained through the use of a coerced confession and mistaken eyewitness identification. The system is fallible, and ours is more fallible than most. He is the 9th person to have been exonerated from our death row."

There will be a Q&A session after the screening with the film's director Will Francome, along with Michael Cahoon of the Promise of Justice Initiative and Rebecca Hudsmith from the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Middle and Western Districts of Louisiana.

The free screening will take place Tuesday, March 13th 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM at the Lafayette Public Library, South Regional Library, located at 6101 Johnston Street in Lafayette. Those interested can visit to reserve tickets.

(source: KATC news)

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